International tension over water in Central Asia is growing, but the United States can offer only modest help in preventing conflict, a panel of experts has told a Congressional committee.
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats held a hearing November 18, "Water Sharing Conflicts and the Threat to International Peace."
Water conflict in Central Asia takes different forms, from the international (as seen in the dispute between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over the latter's proposed Rogun Dam project) to the local (as seen in recurring border skirmishes between residents of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in the Ferghana Valley).
A senior European diplomat has visited the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh to try to reduce tensions after Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter there last week.
Andrzej Kasprzyk, the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson in Office, visited the de facto Karabakh capital of Stepanakert on November 17. Kasprzyk seems not to have made any public comments, but Armenian officials used the occasion of his visit to complain about what they called a muted international reaction and perceived "impunity" for Azerbaijan.
And Kasprzyk's visit itself became another point of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian officials said he would visit the site of the shootdown during his visit, but Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense said that was "another lie and speculation of the Armenian side." And indeed, when Kasprzyk visited the line of contact for a planned monitoring mission on November 18, he appears not to have gone to the crash site.
The site has remained closed to Armenian forces since the helicopter was downed on November 12; it still has not been ascertained whether all three of the aircraft's crew died in the crash. Likewise, there has yet to be any outside assessment of the claims of the opposing sides that the helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was preparing to attack Azerbaijani positions (as Baku says) or was on the Karabakh side of the line and was unarmed (as Yerevan and Stepanakert say).
The presidents of Azerbaijan and Iran, Ilham Aliyev and Hasan Rouhani, at an official dinner in Baku. (photo: president.az)
Iran President Hasan Rouhani completed a visit to Baku, and while the two sides didn't announce anything too newsworthy, the visit underlined how tension between the two countries has considerably diminished over the course of this year.
Rouhani visited Baku November 12-13, and his delegation also included senior presidential aides and ministers of oil, foreign affairs, roads, communications and information technology and economy, as well as the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. And it followed a visit by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev to Tehran in April. "Indeed, the fact that the two presidents met four times over a period of nine months was a milestone in the history of the two countries’ ties," wrote the Iranian website mehrnews.com in an analysis of Rouhani's trip.
That analysis dated the decline in the two countries' relations to what it called "the Eurovision 2012 misunderstandings," when Baku hosted the European song contest, there were rumors that a gay parade would be held in connection with that, and Iran withdrew its ambassador from Baku.
An Armenian Mi-24 helicopter hit by Azerbaijani fire November 12, in a photo released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense.
After Azerbaijani armed forces shot down an Armenian helicopter, probably the most significant military incident between the two sides in two decades, Armenian military and political figures have promised to retaliate.
The helicopter was shot down on November 12, near the line of contact between the two armed forces. Azerbaijan said the Mi-24 helicopter had crossed the line of contact and was planning to attack, Armenia said the aircraft remained on its side and was moreover unarmed. At least two of the helicopter's crew were killed (and some reports said all three crew members died).
The warnings of retaliation came almost immediately. "The consequences of this unprecedented escalation will be very painful for the Azerbaijani side," a spokesman for the Armenian Ministry of Defense said that day.
One small act of retaliation already took place: on November 13, the day after the helicopter was shot down and Azerbaijan declared the airspace over Karabakh "closed," Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan flew there anyway on a helicopter.
Karabakh's airspace "really is closed, but only to the Azerbaijan air forces, and they should have had the courage to finish the sentence," David Babayan, an adviser to the territory's de facto president, told RFE/RL.
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made his first visit to Central Asia since becoming president earlier this year, to Turkmenistan. And while the headline news from the visit was a deal to supply Turkmenistan natural gas to Turkey, boosting military cooperation likely was on the agenda as well, regional analysts say.
During Erdogan's visit, he signed an agreement with his counterpart, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, to supply gas to the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project. That project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, would take gas from the Caspian shore of Azerbaijan to Turkey's western border. How Turkmenistan would get its gas to the pipeline was left unsaid, but Russia has expressed strong opposition to the idea of a pipeline being built across the Caspian, and should such a pipeline be constructed it would really ramp up tensions on the sea. From a Reuters story on the visit:
[T]o join the pipeline Turkmenistan will have to lay another pipeline across the Caspian Sea.
Asked how Turkmenistan could join the TANAP project, Atagas head Osman Saim Dinc told Reuters: "We are working on all alternative routes." He did not elaborate.
Central Asians already clean Russia's streets and work on its construction sites, so why couldn't they fight its wars, too? That appears to be the thinking behind a Russian lawmaker's proposal to create military units manned by migrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to fight in Ukraine and against ISIS in Central Asia.
The proposal was made by Roman Khudyakov of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (led by ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and caused quite a stir in the Russian press. (One blog post called the would-be fighters "Gastarbeiter-Soldiers.") The newspaper Izvestia carried the most detailed description of Khudyakov's proposal. In his words:
In the French Foreign Legion there are soldiers from 136 countries, and not one French person dies in war. Why should our soldiers die? One way or another we need to respond to the challenges of today -- this is connected with global security and the threat of terrorism. We can't allow ourselves to close our eyes to the fact that fanatics from ISIS are now preparing an expansion into Central Asia and Russia. And we should stop them outside Russia's borders and preferably without the participation of the Russian armed forces. The foreign legion could deal with this.... Residents of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan would gladly fill the legion, there's no problem there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly session in Moscow on November 6. (photo: Kremlin)
The head of Russia's post-Soviet security bloc said that instability in the region is "in most cases" the result of external manipulations, particularly by the United States. Russian officials also said the group was pursuing ties with countries from around the world, in particular Iran.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization held a session of its parliamentary assembly in Moscow on November 6. In addition to full CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan, the parliamentary assembly includes Afghanistan and Serbia. And that group may expand to include Iran, said the speaker of Russia's state Duma, Sergey Naryshkin.
“We believe that in the long term, that experience may be expanded and representatives from the parliaments of other countries, for instance, Iran, might be invited into the CSTO Parliamentary Assembly,” Naryshkin said.
And more broadly, the CSTO is pursuing closer ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China, Iran, Latin America and countries of the Caribbean, said the group's general secretary, Nikolay Bordyuzha.
Most interesting were Bordyuzha's claims about the U.S. and other Western countries fomenting dischord in the CSTO region. While this isn't an especially new theme for Russian officials, Bordyuzha's comments contained an unusual amount of detail. From the CSTO's account of the event:
The firing of Georgia's defense minister and ongoing shakeup of the Georgian government is the biggest political crisis the country has faced since the coalition led by former President Mikheil Saakashvili left office two years ago. But does it threaten the country's ties with the West?
Many of the headlines in the Western press referred to the "pro-Western" orientation of the departed officials, with the implication that there was a geopolitical significance to the move. "Georgia's premier sacks pro-Western defense minister," wrote Reuters. "Georgia's Pro-West Foreign Minister Quits," reported Voice of America. "Georgian Pro-Western Foreign Minister Announces Resignation," reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Although the sacked defense minister, Irakli Alasania, himself suggested that his firing was "an attack on Georgia's Euro-Atlantic choice," many other top Georgian officials took pains to ensure that that wasn't the case. "Our country's Euro-Atlantic integration is not only our government's, but our people's, choice and this process is and will be unchangeable," Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said after firing Alasania.
Germany and Uzbekistan have reportedly agreed on an extension of the leasing agreement for the German air force base in Uzbekistan. But the details of the deal remain a tightly held secret.
The previous agreement by which Germany operated the small air base at Termez, on the border with Afghanistan, lapsed at the end of October. Germany has operated the base, which supports German troops in Afghanistan, since 2001. As of a few days before the deadline the two sides had yet to agree on an extension, but they seem to have made a deal.
"The ministries of defense of the two countries signed an agreement of the rent of the air hub," a "source familiar with the situation" in Moscow told RIA Novosti. But the source "declined to specify the new time frame of the lease and the details of the agreement." The Uzbek service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported the the two sides also signed a "non-disclosure agreement" to not reveal the terms of the agreement.
Russian analysts, of course, are spinning this as really being about the U.S. The fact that the Germans are paying "a substantial sum" for the base which is "absolutely not needed for the few hundred German soldiers staying in Afghanistan after 2014 ... indirectly shows that the extension of the base lease is also being used by the U.S. Air Force," Arslan Magomedov told Regnum.ru.
But an unnamed German official told RFE/RL that Termez is still important for the German military. "Regardless of the completion of the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, we'll continue our important work. And that means that Termez remains an important air base for us."
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Abkhazia's de facto president Raul Khajimba at the Kremlin in August. (photo: Kremlin)
As Russia and Abkhazia negotiate closer ties, the Abkhazian side is signaling that it is no Crimea and that it has no wish to be annexed into its neighbor and patron.
A draft of a proposed "Treaty on Alliance and Integration" between the two parties was released in October and caused a substantial outcry in Abkhazia, where many objected to what they said was in effect a sacrifice of their sovereignty to Moscow. Abkhazia won de facto independence in the early 1990s after a war with Georgia, and although Russia today is essentially Abkhazia's only ally and protector, Abkhazians remain ambivalent about Russia's heavy hand in their affairs.
Last week, Abkhazia released its own proposal for the agreement. It makes some substantial changes, starting with the name: it replaces "Integration" with "Strategic Partnership." And it gives Abkhazia more control over the joint armed forces and "unified defense space" that the agreement envisages.
The new public draft comes after Abkhazian officials acknowledged that the proposal -- like nearly all agreements between Russia and Abkhazia -- was drafted by Russia and signed by Abkhazia. But government officials in Sukhumi say they're not working that way any more. At an October 17 public meeting on the agreement, covered by local newspaper Chegemskaya Pravda (not online, via BBC Monitoring) Deputy Foreign Minister Irakli Khintba said: